No matter how far you venture back in history, there are countless tales told about the legends, beliefs, and celebrations surrounding the exciting traditions of the glorious fall harvests. In early England John Barley Corn would be the spirit and protector of the crop until the final sheaf had been cut; the Lord of the Harvest was a prominent member of the community assigned to oversee the vital seasonal work; church bells rang out each day of the harvest; horses and wagons were gaily decorated as they fetched heaping loads of the bountiful crops safely back home; they claim there was a Corn Spirit; and of course there was always a gala harvest feast when it was all done.
From the beginning of time hardy families and neighbours would gather together to harvest their meagre crops, making use of whatever tools they had fashioned with their own hands. As early as 1700 simple inventions were popping up to make the arduous harvest task a little easier, and although labour saving machinery and methods rolled into the 19th century, the heritage and traditional efforts of each and every fall harvest will never change.
In the early adventures of the harvest the sickle or reaping hook would allow one man to cut from one half to one acre in a gruelling day’s work. In an ongoing battle against the weather clock the precious cut grain was later bound by hand. The scythe was the companion tool to the reaping hook or sickle, usually used for mowing down grass, but occasionally to cut the tall and straight standing oat and barley crops. With the sturdy scythe a good man could cut up to three acres a day.
A little later it was the cradle that was the most efficient means of cutting grain before McCormick’s invention of the reaper in 1834. The cradle consisted of a broad scythe with a light frame of four wood fingers attached to it, the advantage being that by a turn to the left the operator could throw the grain into a swath, which was ready to be raked and bound into sheaves. For cradling grain, two acres was considered a day’s work.
American inventor Cyrus McCormick’s first successful harvesting machine or reaper was a milestone in the hectic world of harvesting. The world’s first reaper incorporated the seven basic principles of future grain cutting machines; including a reciprocal knife, fingers or guards, revolving reel, platform, master wheel, forward draft and divider. This first machine would require only two people for the operation (one to ride the horse and the other to rake the grain from the platform), with the end result being the cutting of as much grain in one day as four to five men with cradles or 12 to 16 men with reaping hooks. Many exciting improvements were made to this harvesting equipment over the following years, including seats for the raker and driver and a wider swath. The self-rake reaper, known as ‘old reliable’ was a one-man machine that added an automatic rake that swept grain off the platform and deposited it into neat gavels of grain on the ground that were ready to be bound into bundles by the hand binders. It could also be easily adjusted to do other jobs such as straight hay mowing, and of course freed up a great many workers to tackle the many other tough jobs around the farms.
The McCormick Marsh Type Harvester was built from 1875 to 1883, and consisted of the same cutting mechanism as the early reapers, but added a nifty elevator and binding platform. Two men would ride on the platform, binding grain by hand as the elevator delivered it to them. The unique McCormick Harvester and Binder of 1876 was the first practical self-binder ever built, and people traveled for hundreds of miles to see the initial machine to be controlled by one man, with the grain cut and automatically bound in a single operation, and about 30 times faster than earlier methods. McCormick built and sold 50,000 of these binders between 1877 and 1885. By now the trusty pulling power of the horse to move these heavy machines was slowly being replaced by powerful steam engines and the power take-offs of a vast array of tractors coming into the vastly growing industry.
The first successful combine was built in the 1830s by Hiram Moore of Kalamazoo, Michigan, was pulled by 20 horses, and featured a wheel that rolled along the ground that drove the cutting and threshing machinery. After the steam-power era, internal combustion engines were speeding up and modernizing the operation of the mighty combine, which was filling many motorized trucks with loads of rich harvest many times a day.
The delightful Crestomere/Sylvan Heights Heritage book recalls that the first threshing done in the district was in 1903 by George Brown and Sandy Ogilvie from the Fairview district just north of Lacombe. It was a hand-fed horse-power driven machine, which was later purchased by a pair of ambitious locals Wallace Archibald and George Taylor, who took on all the threshing for miles around until 1914. Wallace bought a huge 14-horse portable steamer from Nathan Taylor to power his harvest machinery for many years, and that machine is now on display at the Stan Reynolds Historic Musuem in Wetaskiwin.
Until 1915 most of our district farmers stacked their grain as soon as the sheaves were dry enough, then carried on with ploughing and other farm work until the first freeze-up. In those days they often thrashed until Christmas or into January. Many outfits, the likes of Wallace and Jud Archibald, Frank and Jud Adams, Linder Brennesholtz, Nathan Taylor, and others took care of the custom harvesting for farmers for countless miles around the district until after the late 1930s. By this time the combines and larger machinery were taking over, and threshing was almost a thing of the past. Over all those years the hard work, pride, and vital importance of the prairie harvest must always be cherished and saluted, along with all those dedicated men and women who have chosen to challenge the season’s year after year in order to provide us all with nature’s finest rewards.